doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.116 Published online 9 September 2016
Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11) might become India's first genetically modified (GM) food crop released for cultivation by regulators Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), if there's no public resistance to its launch.
University of Delhi scientists developed the GM mustard hybrid variety Brassica juncea close to a decade back and demonstrated that it produces 38% more yield as opposed to control varieties. Ever since, they have been fighting anti-GM activists, who are opposed to the introduction of the hybrid citing safety reasons.
But a 7-member sub-committee set up by India's Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has sought to put the controversy to rest and recommended its clearance. After studying data provided by its developers, the committee declared this week that DMH-11 and its parental lines "do not raise any public health and safety concern for human beings and does not pose any threat to biodiversity."
Complying with the request of the Central Information Commissioner, the ministry has put the sub-committee's 133- page "Safety Assessment Report" online and invited public comments1. The GEAC will take the final decision on GM mustard, keeping in mind, feedback received before October 5, 2016.
"It is a good thing," Govindarajan Padmanabhan, a biochemist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru told Nature India. "I only hope the GM supporters respond."
Mustard is a self-pollinating crop with both male and female characters. Male sterility in one of the parents is a fundamental necessity for efficient hybrid seed production. Ensuring male sterility, the DMH-11 has three genes derived from a commonly occurring soil bacterium. "The GM route is a platform-technology, where by a whole new generation of (mustard) hybrids, introducing newer characteristics can be done as never before," Padmanabhan said.
But the civil society groups fighting for GM free India are not convinced. "Inviting feedback now is meaningless," Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) told Nature India. "They should have put out the biosafety data for independent scientific scrutiny before reaching the conclusion (that GM mustard is safe)," she said.
She pointed out that the document (Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety) put out in the website is not the same as the biosafety dossier on which feedback is being sought. "This shows total lack of seriousness about rigorous scientific scrutiny of the data." If the feedback process has to be really meaningful the entire biosafety dossier — not an abridged version — should be uploaded and at least 90 days’ time should be given for comments from public," she said.
Pushpa Bhargava, a leading biologist and Supreme Court appointed member of GEAC, agrees. "The issue of GM-mustard has turned out to be extremely important for the country and people should be taken into confidence," he said. "The GEAC is only going through the motion of engaging with the public and is not serious," he told Nature India pointing out that "most of its members have conflict of interest."
Presently, Bt cotton is the only GM crop allowed for commercial cultivation in India and GM mustard may face hurdles even if cleared by GEAC after its engagement with the public. In 2010, Bt brinjal was cleared for commercial cultivation by the GEAC only to be over-ruled by the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh. Moreover, a GEAC approval doesn’t mean the states have to follow suit.
"The best way to resolve the issue," says Padmanabhan "would be to make GM mustard available to farmers and they will find out in no time whether it is worth taking it forward."